Baltimore, Md., Nov 14, 2018 / 12:42 pm (CNA).- As one of the testimonies progressed at the Silence Stops Now rally near the USCCB’s Fall General Assembly, Anna Ahlbin, an expectant mother of six who had traveled from Fredericksburg, Va., turned to her young children and instructed them to cover their ears.
While she thought it was important to bring her family to a rally demanding change, reform, and accountability for the Church’s bishops, she still wanted to do as much as she could to prevent her children from hearing graphic details of abuse.
Ahlbin told CNA that she felt “a deep sense of betrayal and confusion” by the bishops, a stark departure from her past views on the episcopacy.
“I used to be the type of person who thought, you know, I looked for the nihil obstat and I knew it was fine, and I just trusted, immediately,” she said.
“And now it’s, ‘Who can I trust? Who’s the good guys, who’s the bad guys? Who’s lying to me and who isn’t?’”
Ahlbin and her children were part of a crowd of about 200 who gathered at the rally, which was sponsored by numerous organizations unhappy with the way the U.S. Bishops’ Conference has handled reports of sexual abuse, most notably Church Militant, a website that has been the subject of criticism from some bishops and is run by Michael Voris, who the Archdiocese of Detroit announced in 2011 was not authorized to use the word “Catholic” in reference to his media project “Real Catholic TV.”
Along with another rally sponsor, the Lepanto Institute, Church Militant was in 2015 criticized by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, who wrote that “the sole desire of both Lepanto and Church Militant is to create division, confusion, and conflict within the Church. Actions of that nature run contrary to Christian tradition. Their reports are not to be taken seriously.”
A variety of speakers provided testimony at the rally, including an alleged victim of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s abuse.
Demonstrators CNA spoke to traveled from all over the country to attend various protests, including one woman who said she and her husband were visiting Baltimore from California to express their disappointment with the bishops.
The Silence Stops Now rally was the biggest gathering by far, but it was not the only demonstration. Throughout the three days of the USCCB’s Fall General Assembly, there have been pockets of protestors gathering, angry at the conference of bishops. While the groups they represent, the specific concerns, and the proposed solutions have varied, their feelings of anger, hurt, and confusion were consistent.
A group of Georgetown University students, all of whom are active in Catholic campus ministry, spoke to CNA about their concerns that the Church was not doing enough to stand with survivors of abuse and to punish the perpetrators. They also expressed disappointment at their own school refusing to rescind honorary degrees to McCarrick and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, whose resignation as Archbishop of Washington was recently accepted by the pope.
Grace Laria, a senior at Georgetown, told CNA that her group drove up from D.C. that morning “to show that Georgetown students really care about the Catholic Church and issues that confront it, particularly the sexual abuse crisis.”
Laria said that while there had been numerous events on campus regarding the abuse crisis, she wanted to travel to Baltimore to continue to demand some sort of action, even informal, that demonstrates the bishops “are willing to stand up for survivors and take action.”
Her concerns were echoed by fellow Georgetown student Julie Bevilacqua, who said the crisis made her feel angry and hurt.
“I just really feel a sense of urgency for some kind of action and for us to see some change to show…that our Church is willing to stand up for survivors and to stand with them,” Bevilacqua told CNA. She said that she hopes young people, women, and lay leaders like herself will be given a bigger platform in the Church in the future.
Although most of those demonstrating outside the assembly were critical of the bishops, the USCCB, and Church hierarchy as a whole, there was one notable exception to these feelings: Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States.
In August, Vigano released an explosive letter that claimed, among other things, that Pope Francis had stripped penalties imposed on Archbishop McCarrick by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. During the general assembly, many bishops publicly expressed displeasure at the Vatican’s perceived stalling of any investigation into the claims made in the letter.
At the Silence Stops Now rally, a mere mention of Vigano’s name drew applause, and at one point, those assembled chanted his name in a manner that was not unlike a political campaign rally. Conversely, the mention of just about any other bishop sparked a chorus of boos.
A six-foot-tall poster displayed outside the hotel on Wednesday was even less subtle: a picture of Vigano, captioned “Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, OUR HERO!! Thank you!”
That poster was positioned next to an image of Our Lady of Fatima, and another featuring a collage of American cardinals, accusing them of being complicit with Satan.
Connie McCalla, who traveled to Baltimore from Philadelphia, said that while she found the message at the Silence Stops Now rally to be a bit “mixed,” she was there to demand accountability among bishops.
A bishop needs to be transparent and remember “that they are to lead the Church and to protect the body of Christ,” said McCalla. The bishops “need to be heard and not behind stone and glass,” she said, pointing to the hotel where the assembly was being held.
Throughout the weekend, the majority of the demonstrators CNA spoke to had optimistic views on the future of the Church, despite the current controversies and difficulties.
Ahlbin told CNA that although she thinks the Church must “repent, submit to grace, and allow it to stop being about policy,” returning to a focus on God and the Holy Spirit, she’s “confident that the Immaculate Heart of Mary will triumph.”
This story has been updated.